As White House Briefings Get Hotter, Gibbs and Press Play Game of Piñata

If the president's mouthpiece is a human pinata, as one former press secretary put it, then Robert Gibbs is a papier mache tiger.

And the White House press secretary is feeling the hits more and more, as the daily briefings get more contentious and he faces an increasingly prying press corps.

Pinata may not be a role Gibbs is comfortable playing. His tendency is toward levity, and he's kept that trademark sense, injecting humor into the situation to keep tensions from flaring too much -- a joke here, a playful metaphor there, a little bit of physical comedy.

But in response to rising pressure, analysts say Gibbs is showing a thin skin, quick to punch back and take a dig at a reporter rather than absorb it and move on.

It's a strange stylistic brew, compared to predecessors not known to smile while they're taking, and giving, a beating. At times, Gibbs plays up his part as the class clown, playing pranks on the hapless members of the media. At others, he shuts them down. Sometimes he does both. Whether this unique blend will serve the president's spokesman well remains to be seen, as approval ratings go south and the media respond with more critical questions about the administration's signature domestic policy initiative, health care reform.

An example of Gibbs' approach was on display Monday as he elaborately waved off a question on forecasts about Democratic losses in the 2010 congressional elections.

"I let the extremely smart prognosticators that always predict with unfailing accuracy the brilliance by which Americans will render their opinion in more than a year. I will leave them to their stately craft," Gibbs said.

Rich Noyes, research director at the Media Research Center, said Gibbs' freewheeling style sometimes serves to eclipse the sound bites the White House is trying to embed in evening broadcasts and front-page articles.

"It's a hard job to be someone else's spokesman and let fly with off-the-cuff humor," he said. "If you trump your own message by being cute or snapping, you haven't done the president a service."

Gibbs declined to be interviewed for this article.

Every White House press secretary develops a public persona. Scott McClellan, who had a rocky tenure under the Bush administration -- was dubbed by one newspaper the "Unanswer Man" for his uncanny ability to thwart questions at every turn. His successor, the late Tony Snow, had more of a rapport with the press.

Gibbs has emerged as somewhat of a showman, with all the flare and pugnacity of a television judge.

But in between the jokes is a combative tenor.

Gibbs was left to the wolves last month as he faced question after question on where the administration stood on a government-run health insurance plan -- after President Obama and Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius suggested the so-called "public option" was no longer critical.

Gibbs responded by turning to a tactic employed earlier in the year. Target the media.

"A lot of people took it as kind of floating a trial balloon," one reporter noted.

"Meaning the media," Gibbs said, interrupting.

The reporter continued to try to explore the apparent change in the administration's tone.

"And here's my question," the reporter said.

"No I'll finish my answer first," Gibbs said.

Gibbs later opined: "I always regret when you guys take something and make it an outsized thing."

A few days before that, Gibbs cut off a line of questioning from FOX News on why members of the public were receiving unsolicited e-mails from the administration on health care.

After brushing off the questions by saying he doesn't have "omnipotent clarity," Gibbs filed for one-vote cloture.

"Let me go someplace else that might be constructive," Gibbs said, moving on.

A little combativeness is hardly an oddity for someone in what is arguably one of the toughest posts in Washington. Press secretaries' tenures have gotten shorter and shorter as they've had to operate more and more under the persistent glare of television cameras.

But anyone looking for a clue to Gibbs' particular style might look to his years as a goalkeeper on his high school and college soccer teams.

The Alabama-born strategist spent several years tending the goal for North Carolina State University, and that spring-to-action defensive posture shows through whenever a tough question hurtles his way.

"I'm a protector of the image," he said in an interview last year. Behind Gibbs, in the net, is the president's credibility.

In one high-profile flare-up last year, Gibbs confronted FOX News' Sean Hannity on air over allegations about then-Sen. Barack Obama's ties to William Ayers, co-founder of the radical Weather Underground. Testing the guilt-by-association narrative that had dogged Obama for months -- be it with Ayers or former pastor Jeremiah Wright -- Gibbs suggested that Hannity was at fault for recently interviewing somebody who had made insensitive comments about Jews.

"Are you anti-Semitic?" Gibbs asked, triggering a frenzied on-air debate.

He's not just prickly with the press. Gibbs worked as Sen. John Kerry's press secretary during the 2004 presidential campaign, but quit along with another top aide in reaction to the firing of campaign manager Jim Jordan.

He then went on to join Obama's staff, working for him in the Senate and through the presidential campaign.

Ari Fleischer, who served as George W. Bush's first press secretary and has since used the term "human pinata" to sum up the position, said the job takes a sharp turn when the administration's not doing so well.

"It is the most wonderful and best job you'll ever hold -- while at the same time it's a job that over time grinds you down and burns you out," he told "It gets tougher at a time like this, when events are going bad or wrong for the White House. ... The challenge is to tread water and not make a mess."

Fleischer pleaded the fifth on Gibbs' performance to date, but empathized with the jam he was in over Sebelius' remarks on health care.

"It's an impossible question to answer," he said.

Donald Rieck, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, said it's part of any press secretary's job to take punches and, where appropriate, push back. But he said Gibbs tends to "personalize" the tough questions.

"You're going to have a room full of enemies if you don't have the ability to realize it's not personal. It's business," Rieck said. "As the press gets more combative, it'll be interesting to see how he sort of ages and grows."

The last time that level of combativeness showed through was in February and March, when Gibbs took a series of potshots at personalities and networks not to his administration's liking.

Asked about CNBC host Jim Cramer's claim that Obama's economic policies represent the "greatest wealth destruction" by a president, Gibbs suggested Cramer was playing to a "very small audience."

Before that, Gibbs responded at length to CNBC reporter Rick Santelli's on-air rant at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, in which he stirred up traders by shouting that the government was promoting "bad behavior" with its mortgage rescue plan.

Gibbs said Santelli argued "quite wrongly" that the plan was ineffective and concluded by inviting him to the White House for a cup of "decaf" coffee. The press laughed at the quip, but Santelli later said he felt personally threatened by the White House.

Since then, the press secretary has shown a tendency for the unpredictable and absurd.

In mid-May, in the height of Supreme Court pick speculation, he began his daily briefing by revealing that Obama would announce his choice that Saturday morning.

After a sudden silence in the room, Gibbs howled: "Gotcha!"

A few days before that, Gibbs went on an entertaining rampage to crack down on noisy cell phones.

At the briefing, Gibbs confiscated one reporter's ringing phone after he disregarded Gibbs' warning to put it on vibrate. To roaring laughter, he took it to the back door and tossed it out. When another reporter's phone rang, Gibbs again tried to snatch it but the reporter disengaged and walked away.

"There's cotton candy down the street. It's a circus," Gibbs said, as order was restored.

But testy Gibbs is back, even as he intersperses his put-downs with playfulness and metaphors about food.

Following the questions over Sebelius' remarks, for instance, he cutely compared competition in the insurance market, and the effect that has on prices, to competition between the restaurants reporters choose to eat at before attending his briefing. "If you had two places to eat, my sense is competing dishes might not be as expensive as if there were only one," he said.

It was yet another example of Gibbs watering down the tension with a quip, moments after contributing to it.

But analysts say the jokes will only get him so far if the press decides to apply the squeeze.

"You don't make your money when the honeymoon's there. You make your money when the missiles are flying," Rieck said.